In Struggle

Dispatches from the Trotskyist Left

Category: Theory

“Proletarian Bonapartism” and Prebendal Politics (DWS Series Part II)

In Part 1 of the DWS series, I laid out what I consider to be a theory of deformed workers’ states. That theory posited that such states came into existence under distinct conditions. Petty-bourgeois movements, usually anti-imperialist, were supported by discontented layers of workers and/or peasants and were thereby forced to smash the bourgeois state managed by the pro-imperialist collaborators and compradors; once in power, these petty bourgeois forces, if facing a heightened threat from imperialist countries, could turn to the Soviet Union as a model and source for material support, collectivizing the economy with the instituting of central planning. Lacking such a potential patron today, or a system of workers’ states that could provide support, the creation of new deformed workers’ states is not on the agenda and has not been for decades.

But sweeping nationalizations did not just occur in the deformed workers’ states. Less comprehensive expropriation of private capital occurred throughout the developing world, often as a result of newly acquired independence, from the 1950s to the 1970s. In Ethiopia under the Derg, in Burma under Ne Win, in Mozambique under FRELIMO, in Syria under Assad, and in many other countries besides, most if not all of the commanding heights of industry were brought under state control. As with the deformed workers’ states, the purpose of these nationalizations was to embark on a road of crash development for the purpose of nation building. Yet in the case of the countries mentioned above (and many others besides), the large-scale nationalizations were a part of a political program and a state apparatus firmly committed to the development of private capital for the benefit of the nation as a “stage” that was purported to be necessary before socialism became attainable. Even in cases where the existing bourgeois state had been smashed violently through an independence struggle, the ruling apparatus that emerged was one that set about quickly reconsolidating a capitalist state, albeit one managed by a party that supposedly had an interest in advancing to socialism at some future date, after the capitalist stage had been completed.

Despite the grandiose claims of the ruling parties of these states, the Soviet bureaucracy was aware that these states were neither “socialist” nor dictatorships of the proletariat (or workers’ states). The official press from the 1960s onward claimed that these were states embarking down the “non-capitalist path” or “non-capitalist road” of development, led by parties of a “revolutionary democratic” or “national democratic” nature. In the words of one Soviet theorist, governments of this type represented “a revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of semi-proletarian and non-proletarian working masses and petty-bourgeois strata all anxious to see independent progressive development” (Socialism and the Newly Independent Nations, 77). If any of this language sounds familiar, that is because it should. These supposedly “revolutionary-democratic” states abided by the default program of all Stalinist parties from 1934 onward, and which was also practiced initially by the forces that created the deformed workers’ states only after imperialist maneuvers compelled them to abandon that program. That program, of course, was the popular front, entailing as it did anti-revolutionary collaboration with capitalism.

“Proletarian Bonapartism”

Whatever the problems their analyses contained, the Soviet theorists demonstrated at least a modicum of comprehension in refusing to label these countries’ governments as workers’ states. In some of them, the industrial and urban working class constituted a tiny fragment of the population. And except in the most developed of these societies, the economy was overwhelmingly dominated by a combination of subsistence agriculture and coercive feudal-type rent-taking by landlords enmeshed in wider networks of market relations–a kind of semi-feudal transitional form of production akin to postbellum tenant farming in the U.S. South.

Such realities seem to have been of small importance to Ted Grant, an ostensible Trotskyist who lent his name to a “revolutionary” tradition marked by such practices as support for police unionization and long-term strategic entry into reformist labor parties. In his book The Unbroken Thread Grant gave his take on how to understand the creation of deformed workers’ states from the perspective of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution:

“Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution forms the starting point of a Marxist description of the revolutionary processes in the underdeveloped countries: the colonial revolution. But in the transitional period between capitalism and the establishment of workers’ states the picture has been enormously complicated: given the delay in the revolution in the advanced countries, the degeneracy of the world-wide Stalinist movement and the subsequent absence of mass revolutionary parties in the third world, all kinds of new social formations unforeseen by Trotsky have been possible.

Under these conditions, with social and economic crisis reaching a pitch, it has been possible for the revolution to unfold, not on the lines of the ‘classic’ Russian pattern, but in the manner of a distortion of the Permanent Revolution. Based upon the already-present model of the totalitarian bureaucracy in Russia, regimes have been established on the same lines: with state ownership and planning of the economy, one-party government and the suppression of democratic rights. Moreover, these have been established on the basis of peasant-based wars, with a variety of petit-bourgeois or Stalinist leaderships, with the working class playing a relatively minor role.”

What is missing from this formulation is an explanation for why individuals upholding a thoroughly reformist and petit-bourgeois program (Stalinism sans state power) would deliberately choose to fashion a planned economy premised on the class power of the proletariat.  One only arrives at this answer later in that section of the book, in a republished article from 1978 where Grant claims that “proletarian bonapartism” (defined by Ted Grant as a bonapartist government that rests on — and the wording here is important — a “nationalised economy”) is the product of some objective force he dubs “attractive power.” Or as Grant himself put it: “Under the conditions of the decay of capitalism-landlordism in the colonial countries, all the social contradictions are aggravated to an extreme. Social tensions reach an unbearable level. Hence in one country after another in Asia, Africa and Latin America, bourgeois democracy is replaced by bourgeois Bonapartist dictatorships or proletarian Bonapartist dictatorships.”

Ted Grant, founder of the Militant Tendency, the political forebear to the IMT and CWI.

If for most Trotskyists the creation of deformed workers’ states was the product of a specific set of historical and above all political circumstances that transmitted pressures to petty-bourgeois bureaucrats wielding at least some agency in their decision making, they were in Grant’s understanding purely the outcome of international structural processes of decolonization and economic crises in the epoch of decay. The politics and program of the bureaucrats is left out, replaced instead by the “attractive power” provided by the economic successes of the fully “nationalised” economy of the Soviet Union. The passive voice in the last quote (“is replaced”), along with the choice of the words “nationalised economy” in his description of proletarian bonapartism, is not accidental. For Grant, nationalization of the strategic core of the economy simpliciter is an objective conduit for working class power, independent of how and on whose behalf that nationalization functions, just as decolonization in the shadow of “attractive power” objectively establishes, seemingly independent of the role or decisions of bureaucrats in a specific political context, “proletarian bonapartist” states. (These methodological errors show some of the objectivist tendencies in Grant’s writings and political tradition, others of which will be the subject of a later post).

In Grant’s view, then, these bonapartist states were not just pursuing some “non-capitalist path.” Neither were they class dictatorships of multi-class popular-democratic fronts of independent progressive forces, as the Soviet theorists would have it. For Grant, these states were in fact workers’ states which had been qualitatively transformed from the bourgeois variant of third-world bonapartism: “In Vietnam, Laos, Kampuchea, Burma, Syria, Angola, Mozambique, Aden, Benin, Ethiopia and as models, Cuba and China (which in their turn had the model of Eastern Europe as a beacon showing the way) there has been a transformation of social relations” (emphasis in original). The muddling together of states as diverse as Cuba, Aden, Benin, and China is only possible if one takes the position that the class line lies along the process of mass nationalizations, without analyzing the political or economic content of how those nationalizations functioned in the societies where they occurred.

Prebendal Politics

The nationalizations which swept the third world in countries as disparate as Benin and Burma are best understood not as the expropriation of capital but rather as a kind of primitive accumulation of capital. In contrast to Cuba or the Soviet Union, there was no decisive break from imperialist economic institutions. These states almost invariably maintained a “non-aligned” posture during the Cold War in order to maximize economic assistance from both blocs in the hopes of facilitating integration as an independent and formidable player in the global capitalist economy. Their nationalizations were attempts to shield domestic industry from foreign ownership while creating controlled conditions for the accelerated development of a bourgeoisie capable of competing with imperialist firms. Compensation was frequently paid either to foreign or domestic capitalists whose assets were seized. And many private businesses were simply not seized at all, in keeping with the notion that strengthening the national bourgeoisie, with whom the state sector was to work in tandem in cultivating a nationally independent industrial basis, was a key objective in the existing political stage. In the absence of the same push into the arms of the Soviet Union, the indigenization of industry could proceed apace without the creation of a planned economy.

But not without the nationalization of large portions of industry. The class nature of these nationalizations can be seen if we take a single example: Burma.  The “Burmese Way to Socialism” was introduced following the coming to power of General Ne Win, via a coup d’etat staged with the assistance of the rest of the Burmese military. In 1963, a year after taking power, Ne Win’s “Revolutionary Council” proceeded to implement a law on nationalization that stipulated in minute detail how compensation was to be paid to the owners of seized property (including foreign owners). Through the duration of the Ne Win regime, Burma maintained good relationships with the economic instruments of Western imperialism (GATT, the IMF, the World Bank). It also did brisk trade with the firms within those countries. Between 1966, the year after the largest foreign firms had been nationalized, and 1969, the volume of Burmese trade with Western Europe was three times what it was with the Soviet Union and states aligned with it (see page 812 of Stifel’s “Economics of the Burmese Way to Socialism”). By the end of the decade, toward the height of nationalization, 54% of the workforce continued to be employed by the private sector (Brutents, National Liberation Revolutions Today, Vol. 2, 101). And by 1984, seven years after the Right of Private Enterprise Law was enacted, three quarters of the primary sector of the economy was in private hands (Trade and Economic Development of Myanmar, p. 103). These facts have led Cho Cho Thein, now a professor of applied economics at Yangon University, to conclude that despite proclamations to the contrary, “there was no comprehensive socialization of property, and private property ownership remained substantially intact in the main economic sphere of agriculture which supported two-thirds of the country’s population.” At the same time, “[p]rivate property also occupied a large role in the smaller scale manufacturing and the tertiary sector” (Ibid.). Contrary to claims by the IMT that Ne Win “nationalised all land, industry and commerce,” the program of nationalization pursued by Ne Win’s junta/party was to stimulate domestic private enterprise by creating hothouse conditions, not to obliterate it through full collectivization and the institution of socialistic planning.

Ne Win, bonapartist capitalist ruler of Burma from the 1960s through the 1980s

Such a program is evident in how, throughout all these years, the public sector was replete with bribery, skimming, back-channel deals and kickbacks involving black markets, and other forms of corruption were endemic — so much so that they literally structured the state itself. This phenomenon was aptly described by Donald Seekins, a professor of Southeast Asian Studies at Meio University in Okinawa, Japan, in his State and Society in Modern Rangoon (pp. 143-144): “[N]etworks of patron-client relations suffused the society; these, too, were hierarchical, but they also implied reciprocity. Both superior and inferior needed each other, and prospered from their mutual long-term collaboration. The state could not be completely self-sufficient: it needed to extract resources from society in order to continue in power. Tax revenues were not sufficient to fund its programs.” As a result, Seekins continued, “the military elite was obliged to establish mutually supportive relationships with the most successful black market dealers, giving them official protection and information about the state’s periodic crack-downs on smuggling (vital information that was not available to less well-connected black marketers)” in exchange for cash. According to Seekins, this sort of activity was not abnormal. Rather, “all members of the elite (and their wives) dealt in the black market.” And the black market was so extensive that, in an estimate of several scholars that would have shocked even Gorbachev, it accounted for as much as 80% of actual economic activity (Maureen Aung-Thwin, Thant Myint-U and Thant Mynt-U’s “Burmese Ways to Socialism,” p. 73). The result was that the purging of a high-level official had profound economic consequences throughout the country. Instead of being a bureaucrat who sat atop a planned economy, where patronage networks operated on the basis of scaling up the bureaucracy to enjoy a few extra perks but primarily political prestige and authority, Ne Win was a dictator precariously perched above rival clans and networks of military and government officials who had been using and would continue to use their offices to pocket as much as they could — patronage networks that predated Ne Win and opted to place him power.  Beginning in the 1970s, these nationalizations were gradually undone, and the military junta that had placed Ne Win in power remained in control of the country for over a decade even after they had renounced any pretensions to socialism. So much for the Burmese “transformation in social relations.”

What happened in Burma points to the functional role of the nationalizations in protecting domestic industry from foreign competition and in facilitating the accumulation of private wealth through the symbiotic interlocking of state offices and unofficial economies. Nationalized industries performed the same function after the collapse of the Soviet workers’ state — but before the major means of production were privatized — where shady bargains struck through patronage networks were the order of the day. So widespread was this phenomenon that some scholars have taken to calling the process “nomenklatura privatization.” To this day, a similar process is still underway in Belarus, where major portions of the economy remain nationalized under the notoriously corrupt bourgeois state headed by Alexander Lukashenko, estimated in one Wikileak to have amassed a fortune upwards of nine billion dollars. As noted about the way Lukashenko presides over “rent-seeking” (as economists often call such looting) relating to energy resources, “Belarusian observers agree in seeing Lukashenka as playing a central role in this division of rent-seeking areas, as in Belarus ‘it is possible to make good money only on the basis of one’s closeness to the president’” (Living the High Life in Minsk: Russian Energy Rents, Domestic Populism and Belarus’ Impending Crisis, 111). Oddly enough, in keeping with the Grant tendencies’ equation of mass nationalizations with the creation of a workers’ state, there is at least one person in the world, to my knowledge, who despite not being affiliated with those tendencies nevertheless claims that Belarus is a deformed workers’ state by virtue of the survival of much of Soviet-era nationalization there.

Similar use of offices to accumulate private fortunes has also taken place throughout countries in the developing world that Grant would leave off of his list of “proletarian bonapartist” states. The most closely examined case would be that of Nigeria, to which Richard Joseph has devoted an entire book and about which Festus Iyayi has crafted an enlightening article regarding the applicability of the concept of primitive accumulation to this form of politics. The concept has enjoyed such usefulness that a term has been coined to describe it: prebendalism. Derived from the “prebends” (state offices) that in Medieval Europe were given as a reward for service to a lord or king, the concept has been defined by the man who coined it (Richard Joseph) as a political system, “not only one in which the offices of state are allocated and then exploited as benefices by the office-holders, but also as one where such a practice is legitimated by a set of political norms according to which the appropriation of such offices is not just an act of individual greed and ambition but concurrently the satisfaction of the short-term objectives of a subset of the general population.” In other words, prebendalism is more than just corruption; it is the systematization of political power on the basis of said corruption, the end goal of which is accumulation of private wealth that serves as a form of capital waiting for investment openings as privatization ensues. The ubiquitousness of this practice in Africa is captured nicely by a quote from historical sociologist Jean-François Bayart’s essay “Civil Society in Africa”:

“The state is the dominant economic agent in Africa whether the regime is single-party, pluralist or socialist. Everywhere the state’s integration into the world economy has proceeded apace. Everywhere there has been primitive accumulation, that is, over- exploitation of the peasantry. State accumulation is intimately connected with individual accumulation at all levels (including the highest) and in all countries (including the most ‘socialist’). Power in whatever form is inevitably an instrument for the accumulation of wealth. . . . It is, therefore, otiose to seek to establish a conceptual difference between the private and the public sector. Both are the instruments of a dominant class striving to establish its hegemony.”

Prebendalism can be thought to include not just the corrupt use of political office for personal enrichment of the office holder, but also the corrupt use of political office for the enrichment of participants in the private sector (including informal economies). There, too, the nationalized industries in the developing states of the 1950s-1970s can best be thought of as the primary accumulation of capital–whether for use by the office holders themselves, hoping as they might to transform themselves into a nascent bourgesoie, or by an existing bourgeoisie, including a potentially “informal” bourgeoisie operating through black markets.

Interestingly, Soviet ideologists also understood how this corruption functioned in tandem with nationalization in countries on the misnamed “non-capitalist road.” As one author explained it, “The years of independence have been marked by the emergence of a new privileged section, the so-called bureaucratic administrative bourgeoisie, which has been growing in virtually all the emergent countries, and in some of these is the chief, if not the only, social representative of the bourgeois or pro-bourgeois forces.” The bureaucratic bourgeoisie, the author noted, “is a term usually applied to definite elements of the civil service who make use of their official position to enrich themselves, to engage in all manner of dishonest machinations and pursue a political line hostile to the national interest” (Brutents, National Liberation Revolutions Today, Vol. 1, 233).

Rejecting this assessment, Ted Grant was even more giddy in his estimation of the developing world than the Soviet bureaucracy. But there were other self-styled “Trotskyists” who erred in the opposing direction, rejecting the possibility of deformed workers’ states altogether. These groups have been briefly touched upon, and they will be the subject of part three.

Deformed Workers’ States: Socialism from Above? (DWS Series Part 1)

Of all the topics in Marxism (and Trotskyism), probably the most unintuitive and controversial subject of them all is that of deformed workers’ states. After all, an ABC of Marxism is that only workers can make a workers’ state and that it must take place under the leadership of the most advanced layer of class conscious workers–hence, the importance of what Trotsky called the “subjective factor” in his transitional program, and of Lenin’s insistence from 1903 onward of the need to forge a vanguard party on the basis of a higher-order understanding of tasks that stepped beyond simple trade-unionism.

Deformed workers’ states, in Trotskyist parlance, are those states presiding over a society in which the working class is said to be the ruling class, despite the fact that the working class, as a class, has never held direct political control over the government. The concept rests on the distinction, vital to the Trotskyist understanding of the history of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc, between political power, conceived of as exercising power directly in state office, and social power, the class on whose behalf the property relations of the state acts. Trotskyist groups have differed on which states have been workers’ states of a deformed nature. Some — such as the Militant Tendency under Ted Grant, the predecessors to the present-day IMT and CWI — have labeled states as diverse as Mozambique to Angola to Syria to Burma as having been deformed workers’ states (a topic which will be taken up in a later installment of this series). Others, such as the Spartacist League, restrict the list of deformed workers’ states to the more frequently cited Eastern bloc countries, Cuba, North Korea, China, Vietnam and, less frequently, Laos.

Disagreement about deformed workers’ states is not restricted to which states to include. Some self-proclaimed Trotskyists reject the notion of a deformed workers’ state on the basis of the principle mentioned above. As Marx and Engels wrote, “The emancipation of the working class is conquered by the working classes themselves.” Critics of the theory point to such quotes as evidence that only the working class led by a vanguard party can create a workers’ state. In his 1989 book on the Trotskyist tradition Alex Callinicos, the leader of the International Socialist Tendency (of which the largest and most widely known group is the now-fledgling Socialist Workers Party in the UK) presented a paradigmatic case against the possibility of deformed workers’ states, linking it to what he calls “substitutionism,” or the notion that workers do not necessarily have to play a role in the overthrow of capitalism: “But if the Russian bureaucracy could ‘expropriate the expropriators,’ not just in parts of Poland, but throughout Eastern Europe,” he asked rhetorically, “surely this was of more weight practically to those wishing to get rid of capitalism than the aspiration, perhaps Utopian, towards socialism from below?” (Trotskyism, 33).

The Life & Death of Stalinism was published by the LRP in 1990.

Coming from a related but more sophisticated angle the League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP), an ostensibly Trotskyist group of left-Shachtmanite provenance, has argued that the historical circumstances surrounding the transformation of the Eastern Bloc economies in 1947-1948 are incompatible with the Marxist theory of the state. In their book The Life & Death of Stalinism, they devote an entire section to what they call “the date question.” To claim that a social overturn, the creation of new proletarian states, had occurred throughout Eastern Europe in 1947-1948, is in their view to suggest that the overthrow of capitalism can leave “the state apparatus unchanged, since the Stalinists controlled the armed forces and the state bureaucracy both before and after” (Life & Death of Stalinism, 312). The only other alternative — to suggest that the Soviet army created workers’ states as they smashed the existing state apparatus throughout Eastern Europe as they ousted the Axis powers and their client regimes in 1944-1945 — was tantamount to saying that “the Stalinist forces [could] become the agent of proletarian revolution at the very moment when they were crushing the movement of workers’ revolt” (Life & Death of Stalinism, 312). Moreover, the LRP points to the relatively peaceful dismantling of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc deformed workers’ states as proof that such transformations were not counter-revolutions in which the working class was expropriated of ruling-class power. With the exception of Romania, the regimes underwent non-violent transitions to liberalized market economies that contrast sharply with the Great Terror of the 1930s, when the LRP claims the Soviet Union underwent counter-revolution. The title of one of the LRP’s articles on the subject, “And a Peaceful Counterrevolution Was Had by All,” demonstrates the importance the group places on outwardly violent clashes as the necessary markers of revolutionary activity. Since the deformed workers’ states of the Eastern Bloc were created and destroyed (with one exception) without any such clashes, they argue that the theory of deformed workers’ states is entirely inconsistent with the Marxist theory of the state.

How can those upholding the theory of deformed workers’ states respond to these challenges? The essence of the problem with these critiques lies in their empiricism. For Callinicos and those who work alongside him in the Cliffite tradition of the International Socialists, socialist revolution and the creation of workers’ states must take the form of mass workers’ uprisings, democratic in nature, that smash the existing capitalist apparatus and supplant them with the rule of workers’ councils organized by revolutionists of pristine class consciousness. For Walter Daum and others in the LRP, there exists not just the problem of workers’ being suppressed at the moment a workers’ state is supposedly created (as the Cliffites have pointed out), but there is also the issue of what states are and how their “smashing” must appear. According to Daum and co., the state represents bodies of armed men simpliciter, such that it makes no sense to view a transformation in a state apparatus without the violent overthrow of one body of armed men by another. If no violent cataclysmic shift of a seismic amplitude occurs, then it makes no sense to speak of a revolution.

The smashing of the state apparatus, for any Marxist worthy of the title, must always be forcible. To suggest otherwise is to broach the utterly erroneous idea that antagonistic classes share economic interests in regards to modes of exploitation, or that different exploiting classes preside over forms of exploitation that bestow interests similar enough that it makes little sense to distinguish them as separate classes, presiding over different modes of production. The underlying essence of the Marxist theory of the state, then, is that classes are antagonistic — even the interests of different exploiting classes — and that they will use the political power that emanates from their economic preponderance to defend their interests up to the point, in the absence of any sufficiently prohibitive factors, of deploying armed force.  In other words, “force” can assume many forms and does not always required the eruption of large-scale violence among bodies of armed men.

This understanding of forcible transformation is not a novel one in the Marxist tradition. Marx and Engels themselves, in arguments well rehearsed and misconstrued by many a reformist, laid out the possibility of parliamentary paths to socialism in England and the Netherlands, but only on the basis of using parliamentary participation as a gauge to determine the balance of class forces and intent in a way that, through a preponderance of independent (anti-parliamentarist) working-class organizing, might render unnecessary the naked use of force during working-class conquest (on this issue, see August Nimtz’s excellent discussion in Lenin’s Electoral Strategy: From Marx and Engels to the Revolution of 1905, pp. 24-29 ff.). Similarly, Neil Davidson, a scholar in the Cliffite tradition, has made the case that bourgeois revolutions need not take the “classical” form of the French Revolution of 1789, and that the bourgeois qualitative transformations of state apparatuses across the world have generally taken what Gramsci would call a passive form, whereby incremental transformations in the mode of production and the corollary power of subaltern classes accumulate to a point where a state apparatus is seized without the armed resistance of the prior ruling class (here see his How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?).  While Davidson would deny that such a thing is possible for a socialist revolution (a correct assessment we’ll come to below), requiring as they do the consciousness of the proletariat to bring society and its economy under democratically planned management for the producers, the point nevertheless stands: the transformation of the class nature of state apparatuses does not necessarily accompany open warfare or other empirical markers upon which the Cliffites and the LRP otherwise categorically insist when criticizing the possibility of deformed workers’ states.

Another issue to keep in mind is what precisely is meant by the term “state.” Marx, Engels, and Lenin were all clear in defining the state as special bodies of armed men who emanated from and in turn were committed to defending definite class relations, rooted in definite configurations of how productive property was used. For them, a state was not reducible to armed men in general, but rather were specific institutions that were enjoined with a particular mandate by those who owed their economic power to a particular system of exploitation that they wanted to defend, and whose interests had consolidated to a point where it could be defended in institutionalized ways by a specialized apparatus of coercion. So the question arises: are all governments “states”? And do all governments — that is, those institutions that have a monopoly on the use of socially legitimized force — necessarily commit themselves to defending one mode of exploitation or set of property relations underpinning exploitation? Generally speaking, the two coincide, but in periods of extreme tumult, in which middling layers (like the petty bourgeoisie) have been compelled by historical circumstances to smash bourgeois state power, and have appropriated political power without a clear or explicit class program, a divergence between the two can exist for a brief period of time before such power requires the decisive sinking of roots into the camp of a particular class, into a definite mode of exploitation (or opposition to exploitation), lest it succumb to more powerful forces. The sine qua non of a state is not a static empirical marker, but a dynamic that can only be observed through time: the commitment of bodies of armed men to defending or cultivating a particular mode of production and a particular configuration of class relations.

With the above provisos in mind, it is useful to consider how and why the creation of the deformed workers’ states actually occurred. They were the result of one of two processes: petty-bourgeois layers leading indigenous guerrilla armies being compelled to lean on the Soviet Union and its model of collective economic planning as a way of industrializing their economy, independent of the interference of imperialism and political-economic domination of its monopolies (so usually in anti-colonial revolutions, e.g. Cuba or China); or, as in the case of the so-called “buffer states” after World War II, through the Soviet Union moving against imperialism, a result of being compelled to through imperialist inroads like the Marshall Plan (it was only after the US signaled its intention of asserting economic hegemony over the European continent that the Soviet Union moved to replace what were essentially petty-bourgeois governments with Stalinized apparatuses that collectivized the means of production and embarked down the road of being deformed workers’ states).

Castro’s 26th of July movement, triumphant

In all these cases, petty-bourgeois formations ascended to power on a program that did not commit decisively to either the interests of the capitalist or the working class. Based as they were on pressure from mobilized and discontented layers of workers and peasants, they were compelled to break connections with the imperialist order by virtue of the fight for national independence or resistance to fascism. In the process of their struggle they uprooted from top to bottom the bureaucratic machinery that the imperialist order had constructed–in other words, they (or those with whom they were working, the Soviet military during WWII) had successfully smashed the existing bourgeois states. Yet they lacked a proletarian-revolutionary program, and the societies they had just begun to govern lacked revolutionary proletarian parties that could have splintered the newly minted petty-bourgeois governments along class lines. The result was a highly fluid and unstable equilibrium in the class struggle in which, for a period of time, the petty bourgeois elements that sat atop society enjoyed a relative programmatic independence from both the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Their class independence is most evident in their attempts at coalition building and the establishment of popular-front type governments (hence, the ubiquitous use of the popular-front description “people’s democratic” by these governments in Eastern Europe, the “Bloc of Four Classes” and “new democracy” of Mao’s government in 1949, etc.).

Once in power these petty bourgeois governments could have gravitated in one of two directions, depending on the balance of class forces both domestically and internationally. On the one hand, they could have continued to protect private property, throwing their weight behind the development of private industry by a nascent indigenous bourgeoisie, on the basis of claiming that their societies had not developed to a point where proletarian revolution was even on the agenda. In countries where significant portions of the government were beholden to Stalinist ideology, this could have continued to take the form of the self-abnegating building of coalitions roughly similar to those that later became associated with the Eurocommunist movement. Or on the other, the petty-bourgeois formations could have moved decisively to an alliance with the Soviet Union, expropriating private capital and anchoring their governing authority into their role in commanding a planned economy.  Until that decision resulted in the consolidation of an economic basis for indigenous political power, creating definite rules of political reproduction for the governing apparatus, these societies were not identifiably “states” in the Marxist sense of the term.  Their political power had yet to coincide with committing bodies of armed men to the defense or development of any specific set of property relations.

In the case of the deformed workers’ states, the petty bourgeois formations chose the second option. The social overturns in Eastern Europe did not require any forcible uprooting of state power, because that had already been accomplished by the Soviet military several years prior–or in Albania and Yugoslavia,  by indigenous resistance forces, after which time a new state power had yet to coalesce. It does little good, then, for the LRP to point to a continuity in governing bodies or personalities as proof of a continuity of state power. The threat of imperialist encroachment compelled these petty-bourgeois formations to move decisively toward a planned economy entailing alliance with the Soviet Union, out of fear that the cultivation of any significant private holdings might serve as a base for imperialist penetration into their societies. With the so-called Buffer zone that encompassed what later became known as the Eastern Bloc, this decision was the result of the United States breaking its wartime alliance with the Soviet Union and announcing a clear effort, in the form of the Marshall Plan, to exert hegemony over the European continent. This move justifiably alarmed  the Soviet bureaucracy and its ideological allies, who exercised control throughout Eastern Europe.  With China and North Korea, the move came amidst imperialist aggression on the Korean Peninsula during the Korean War. With North Vietnam (later extended to encompass all of Vietnam), the issue was the imperialist attempt to partition the country in 1954 as a wedge to prevent the spread of socialized economies. And with Cuba, the precipitating factor was the nationalization of large U.S. holdings on the island, followed by the Bay of Pigs invasion.  In none of these situations did the petty-bourgeois bureaucracy in power have a revolutionary program.

In each of these contexts, the turn toward collective planning as the source of political power was the response to the threat of imperialism squeezing petty-bourgeois governments into adopting the Soviet model of planning. The social overturns over which they presided are best thought of as a mediated expression, a sort of after-shock, of the profound earthquake that the workers’ conquest of Russian state power in 1917 represented. Petty-bourgeois bureaucrats in those societies were employing the only path open to them of independent national development in an epoch of imperialism — that of workers’ state power, albeit with workers politically expropriated from direct rule of the resulting state apparatuses. Desperate bureaucrats were catching a proletarian wave as it ebbed back into the capitalist ocean. When viewed in this way, the creation of deformed workers’ states did not point to the obsolescence of the Marxist precept that only the working class could liberate itself, for these were not instances of revolution from above. Instead, they were opportunistic bureaucratic expansions of the one successful workers’ revolution in world history, the October Revolution. And even those expansions had a temporary character, eaten away as they were by the mismanagement and anti-worker political suppression meted out by those bureaucracies.

Because deformed workers’ states were not the direct product of any revolutionary working-class agency, they were sliding back to capitalism from birth. And in light of this fact, the duty of the working class in all those countries was the same as in the Soviet Union: to organize the working class into a class conscious and independent fighting party of socialism to expropriate the hardened caste of parasitic bureaucrats who were (and in the remaining states, still are) unwittingly moving their respective countries closer and closer to counter-revolution. On that score history has rendered its verdict in regards to all these countries, with China, Cuba, and North Korea basically at the brink, having been brought there by their bureaucracies. In contrast to the Pabloist conjecture that the Stalinist parties were the objective or unconscious agents of historical processes that thrust them into a revolutionary role that would lead to centuries of deformed workers’ states, Trotskyism espouses that the role of revolutionaries is not to liquidate into these apparatuses or pretend that they are leading the way to socialism.

Yeltsin, leader of the counter-revolution in the USSR, standing atop a Soviet tank during the failed August coup in 1991, the capstone of the disintegration of an international bloc of workers’ states

The creation of the deformed workers’ states were the last byproducts of a single global process kicked off by the Russian working class in October of 1917. The opportunistic bureaucratic expansions of the one successful workers’ revolution in world history, the October Revolution, had a necessarily temporary character without the resurgence of a revolutionary and independent working class, as these social overturns were undermined by the mismanagement and anti-worker political suppression meted out by their respective bureaucracies. Had the October Revolution never occurred, neither would have the creation of deformed workers’ states. And with the disintegration of the initial patron state to these bureaucratized and deformed clients, the era of the creation of new states of a similar quality has likely come to a close. That such states were ever created in the first place, however, signals the profound correctness of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, that revolution is an international process with international ramifications, that the basic level of analysis for Marxists is the international rather than the national. Their existence also signals how workers’ revolution in the USSR could create conditions (namely independence from imperialism) that could be exploited by petty-bourgeois elements who wanted to turn that independence from imperialism against the workers, in oppressive schemes of crash industrial development.

But Stalinist clients of the Eastern Bloc were not the only ones seeking to develop their economies in the 20th century. There were also those who chose to pursue what theorists in the USSR frequently dubbed the “non-capitalist path of development” (mistakenly identified by Ted Grant’s followers to be synonymous with workers’ states). It is to this topic of mass nationalizations in the developing world that we will next turn.

To Be Continued With Part II